Dread clicks and whirs: the sounds of hard drives failing

Datacent, a data-recovery house, has a page of recordings of the sound of hard drives failing, segmented by vendor and cause of failure (e.g., "Western Digital 250GB desktop drive with stuck spindle can't spin up, chatters" and "Fujitsu laptop hard drive with bad heads making sweeping sound"). I love the idea of listening to these until you can identify them by rote, like Sherlock Holmes examining a cigar ash or a birder identifying some exotic warbler's song.

More practically, as Datacent notes, "If your hard drive makes noises like these and you are still able to access your files - backup immediately."

Hard drive sounds (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

(Image: Dead Laptop HDD, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from kdga's photostream)


    1. Back in the early 1980s, some game manufacturers wrote physical errors into 5 1/4″ distribution floppies for copy protection.

      The rhythm of that grinding drive banging heads against the chassis came back like the worst viral earbug the moment you mentioned making music out of drive errors.

      I can hear it even now…


      1. I remember that! I listened to some floppies loading so many times that I had memorised the “music” they made :)

  1. I’m pretty sure that when a hardened data-recovery outfit describes a sound as “making nasty drilling noise” you really wish you had backed up immediately yesterday.

    “Making nasty drilling/screaming sound”, of course, is even worse…

  2. I picture a scene at the datacentre where one analyst is playing the recordings while another calls put the make and model a la Gone in 60 Seconds remake. Probably while wearing sunglasses.

  3. Some time ago — reported here on BoingBoing, I believe — one of the drive manufacturers posted a set of audio files like this for diagnostic purposes, and then ran a contest for folks to remix them into music. I still have some of the resulting MP3’s in my jukebox files, including the rap:

    My hard disk crashed
    My hard disk crizzashed
    That’s where all my good
    porn was stizzashed…

    I’m waiting for someone to come up with a background program which periodically selects one of these sounds and plays it through the PC’s speaker. Wouldn’t convince someone who is using external speakers, but for those using internal it might give them a nasty turn until they figure out what’s going on.

  4. HD’s run very quiet these days, but as a veteran I can tell when an HD is in distress from the noise it makes upon start up.

    Back in the day you could actually hear the difference between data being written and date being read from the platter.

  5. Good grief, that gave me the heebie jeebies to listen to. The anxiety one feels when their drive fails, bottled up in an mp3 and ready to go!

  6. Make a sound file of the long, desperate, hopeless boredom of sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the freezer as you try to recover whatever data you can off your disk before it thaws.

  7. While IBM still produced their desk(death)stars they used to have the drive death sounds on their site for end user diagnostics.

  8. If you hear strange sounds from the hard disk and decides on a last minute copy to save the contents, don’t try to copy everything from the entire hard disk. I once did that. A short time later, I wish I had started with the most important files first.

      1. Yes, solid state drives won’t make noise when they fail. But the freezer trick can work for them too.

        I had a 4GB thumb drive that died, couldn’t mount on windows, mount on linux but failed to read, disappearing directories, etc.

        Solution: stick it in a -80C freezer (I work in a lab, dry ice would work too), stick it in a linux box, use dd to read the raw bytes and write to a file, mount that file as a files system, presto all my files back.

  9. What great timing for this article…the HD on one of my servers just crashed a cpuple of days ago, taking everything with it. We were able to get some bits and pieces off of it, but it’s 99% gone. I’ve been humping like a hound dog on crack the last couple of days working to rebuild everything. :(

    Unfortunately, since the drive was 2,000 miles away I wasn’t able to hear it start to fail. The first indication was that about 110 of our sites just disappeared from teh intarwebs.

  10. Positively terrifying. I lost about 75% of my files and music because of a hard drive death. Now I’m paranoid of every peculiar little noise, especially at startup. :(

  11. It’s funny, the dreaded clicks and whirs were the sounds of IOmega removable drives made when working. Well, mostly working.

  12. As an avid computer user and sysadmin, I’ve learned positively that the best way to diagnose the mechanical health of a hard disk is, indeed, how it sounds. Beware the click of death.

  13. If your hard drive makes noises like these and you are still able to access your files – backup immediately.

    Erm… sure, but you better not overwrite/update your previous backup at that point or it’s likely to turn it into a shitpile of corrupted data.

    Make a NEW, separate backup from your old backups so you can at least salvage what you can before the click and pop concert started.

  14. On the other hand, there’s the sound of a spindle bearing slowly going bad. We had a big 8″ Quantum in a CP/M server with one of those that ran in the late 80s with no errors for years, all the while sounding like offroad 4×4 tires on the freeway. The noise would come and go gradually.

    We dragged the machine out of storage and fired it up many years later, just for laughs, and it still ran fine.

  15. I’ve just realised that when I finish soundproofing my PC’s case, I’ll have deprived myself of a valuable diagnostic tool.

  16. Have to be careful with the “noise = problem” equation since some drives do have awkward sounds that have nothing to do with hardware failure. I have some Seagate 1.5TB SATA drives that make a noise one would think is a “nasty” grinding noise when they are initially powered up, but then are quiet when they run.

    In contrast, these drives replaced some whisper quiet Western Digital 2TB drives that never made a noise, but after a month died for no reason. Light normal use and *POOF* unmountable. Had to format to “recover” the drive. And let me tell you, zeroing out 2TB of data for an RMA can take 10-12 hours. Nasty.

    You know what does scare me? The noise of optical drives. Especially the slot drives on Macs. Holy crap do I not trust them when they start twittering and choking.

  17. Datacent is exactly wrong.

    1) As noted above, never get into a situation where you need to try to do an emergency backup in the first place. Always back up.

    2) If you start to hear strange noises on the drive, you don’t have a backup, and you need to preserve valuable data, then pull out the power immediately.

    3) Send it for data recovery at a proven data recovery company with their own clean room facilities. Yes, this is expensive, sometimes extremely expensive, but you need to weigh this against the value of your data. Handing it over to your cousin who runs the computer lab at a high school is not prudent, nor is giving it to the typical shop or freelancer who claim to have proficiency in data recovery.

  18. Guys, check this out. Before hard drives and before floppies, I had to listen to this noise every time I wanted to load a cassette game into my Atari 400.

    This is how I learned what patience is!

  19. Back when many layer disk packs sat atop something like a washing machine I had an odd experience. It was very easy for a damaged pack to damage other packs if you did a swap. Quickly a small disaster became a great disaster.
    After working my old boy network for what it was worth I got an unlisted phone number for a one person company. I was desperate. The deal was the pack and a certified check for $1200. After describing the problem I asked what the chances were for recovery. He said, “I’ve recovered data after an atomic bomb went off.” From my days in aerospace I knew I’d reached the twilight zone of the spook world. I sent the pack and the money. It came back in satisfactory condition. I used him twice more.

    1. Caution; old-machine stories can quickly become a rathole that takes over any online conversation… (he says, manfully resisting).

      1. Yeah, don’t get me started on the magnetic drums in the old SEL machines we used to static-test rocket motors in the seventies and eighties. Story of Mel, I’m telling you, only with more explosions.

        The noise of an 11″ multi-platter hard drive in a room-size IBM MVS mainframe self-destructing is pretty impressive too. The last time I heard that one was in the mid nineties.

  20. I think (but am not positive) that I may be the person who first suggested putting a drive in the freezer to get the data back. It was on Usenet comp.hardware, or similar, about eight years ago. The reason I think it was me, is the part about a non-condensing temperature ramp. The non-condensing suggestion got turned into some misinformation about putting the drive in a Ziploc bag. I did some crude data recovery using an environmental chamber that allowed a programmable temperature ramp.

    Long before your drive starts making noise, a drive that has a good SMART implementation will self-report that it is having problems. It looks like there is a good wiki on SMART, with a link to some tools on reading the data off the drive.

    – JamesB

  21. Hard drives are cheap now so just get two and mirror them. Maybe that sounds cavalier, but a $60-$70 insurance policy is invaluable for all of your precious data.

    As another alternative, use an offsite backup service.

    1. Mirroring or RAID are not substitutes for backups. If the server is stolen, washed away in a flood, or fried by a lightning strike, you better have backups somewhere else.

  22. At the first Seagate HDD, when the drive gained full speed (ca. 3 seconds after start)…Is that short “click” normal or not? I’m having it on my notebook since the beginning. It occurs like once every 10 minutes or so.
    Does anybody know?

  23. Modern OS’s, Vista and 7, both seem to do a good job running disk diagnostics to warn you BEFORE drive failure. I know Vista has notified me once about a failing drive, which I immediately backed up and then sent back to the manufacture for warranty.

    Much better and probably more accurate than being a disk whisperer…

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